Still Moving Forward- One Step At A Time

imagesIt has been over a year since I have posted anything about Rochelle. I stopped interviewing her on a weekly basis so there was less to report, and her life has calmed down somewhat. Her car has continued to work, but more importantly she has remained employed at the grocery store chain; she is moving forward and upwards in the company. Just a week ago she graduated from their management training school. It was a 12 week program made for upwardly mobile hourly employees. The company has a more advanced management training program for those employees who are ready to go into salaried executive positions. This program is usually reserved for those with college degrees, but Rochelle tells me that one can also be accepted if one is already working for the company and shows great promise. She hopes for that in the future.

Upon graduation Rochelle was promoted from supervisor of cashiers to manager of cashiers; she received two raises and was moved to a new store. Her new store is small with fewer employees than she is used to, but this makes her a big fish in a small pond; she may be able to effect positive change more swiftly in a store like this. According to Rochelle, the store does need some changes and many of the managers are new, including the store manager. Just in the short time she has been there she has seen areas that need some tweaking and is working towards implementing needed changes.

I had a congratulatory lunch with Rochelle a couple of days ago; now she is a person working in a career with goals for the future. She has come a very long way since I first started interviewing her. She seems excited about her future.

Rochelle still doesn’t make much money, though she has had many raises. Three children are expensive for everyone. Nevertheless, her paycheck is paying for more of her expenses. She no longer receives food stamps, and for reasons other than her income, she no longer receives disability for her eldest daughter. Her daughter was born with seizures at birth but has been seizure free for two years. Rochelle purchased health insurance for herself through her company in January and is contributing to their retirement program as well. She does, however, still receive section #8 housing vouchers, and her children’s health insurance is still covered by Medicaid. Though Rochelle is earning more, losing the food stamps and the disability payments makes it so she really is not living on more money. Rochelle’s on going goal has been to break the poverty cycle her family has been caught up in for generations. She is successfully moving in that direction. I am very proud of her and she is proud of herself.

Poverty And Frustration

UnknownRochelle has, and has had, a very difficult life; she had no adult supervision as a child and no adult to learn from. Because of this, and her observations of how adults around her deal with problems, she has no idea how to deal with frustrations and problems of her own. I saw this when I worked with her in the department store several years ago. Instead of discussing the problem with her superiors, Rochelle would always say she was just going to quit. She lasted in that job, however, for seven years and left only after the store closed. In that job promotions were not a possibility; she is now in a beginning management position at the grocery store she works for, and the problem of how to deal with frustrations is again causing difficulties for her. “I hate my boss and I need to transfer stores or change positions,” she recently told me on the phone. “She won’t always be your boss,” I had said. “There will often be times you have to work with people you don’t like and sometimes they will be your boss,” I continued. “Asking the store to move you to a different store or a different position won’t get rid of the problem but will affect your chances of promotion,” I told her. Rochelle had liked her boss in the beginning, but that seems no longer to be the case. I suggested she come over for a visit that week so we could talk about the problem. I was concerned she was going to quit. We made a date but it wouldn’t be until a week later.

A week later Rochelle was at my house and talking much more positively.   She still doesn’t seem able to discuss the problem with her boss; instead says she will just not let it bother her any more. She had actually been rolling her eyes at her boss when asked to do something she didn’t want to do. The boss will not forget that behavior and the problem between them will not disappear.   Management skills do not come easily to many people.   Mistakes are often made when a person doing a good job is promoted into management but not trained for the job. Rochelle has taken the cursory course in management that was offered by her grocery store, but she has yet to apply for their course of management classes that the elite performers are chosen for every year. She wanted to become better acquainted with the store operations before she applied.  That was a good decision, but she is in a tough position now. I did not grow up in poverty but was also put into management jobs without training when I was much younger. It was only later, after a graduate degree in business and a six-week course of management training by my employer that I learned to do a better job. Rochelle is poor, really living hand to mouth, and just trying to survive. The people around her life are all frustrated and poor. I again have my fingers crossed for her; growing up without any good role models does not make forward progress easy for her. I think I will also try to see her more frequently than once a month just so she can talk out her problems with me. She really has no one to talk to at home who will understand and ease her frustrations.

Stormy Seas Again

images-1I thought it was only a matter of time before the relative calm in Rochelle’s life would end; I had been fairly certain it would be either her mother’s health or the breakdown of her car that would cause the stormy seas to break out again; it was the car.

“My safety sticker has expired and I can’t get a new one because my engine light is on,” Rochelle told me. Her engine light had been on for many months and her car had not been working well during this time. She had tried to have her sister’s ex-husband fix the problem; parts had been replaced but the problem had remained. Deshawn, the ex-brother-in-law, had run a computer check when the light had first come on. He manages a quick- oil- change location and has always offered to help. He has also, on occasion, put safety stickers on Rochelle’s cars even though the cars had safety problems. This time, however, Deshawn could not do this for her; people had recently been fired at his shop for doing exactly that; He didn’t want to lose his job.

“I have to get my sticker because Mama drives the car. If the police stop her because of no sticker, she’ll go to jail; she has outstanding warrants,” Rochelle reminded me. Her mother was on parole for welfare fraud and had stopped going to her parole officer long ago. She had also not paid back the money she had gained by this fraud as required by the court. It is somewhat common for people to procrastinate when getting new safety stickers, but Rochelle couldn’t take the risk.

Money, of course, is the real problem. Legitimate repair shops want $100 to run the computer check plus the repair cost, which had been estimated at between $200-$400. Last week Rochelle thought she had circumvented the problem and had paid a man $75 for what turned out to be a fake sticker. She knew it was illegal but thought it would be a real sticker. It wasn’t. Now she is trying to sell this sticker to her uncle.

Rochelle’s life is precarious at best. Currently she has a job and has been promoted twice, but keeping the job requires her children to be cared for and her car to be working. When something goes wrong with her mother or her car, Rochelle is in choppy waters again. A higher income could buy her childcare and car repairs. She is now earning more than she ever has, but it is still not enough. Children are very expensive Rochelle has discovered. She wasn’t able to learn that growing up in generational poverty.

Fear of Failure

images“I don’t care if I don’t get the permanent job; I’m happy to stay a cashier,” Rochelle told me yesterday as we were eating breakfast during our interview.  It seemed her promotion to a supervisor over the cashiers required a 90 day trial period; two of the three people trying out would be officially promoted and given a raise at the end of this period.  She said she hadn’t known this going in and was now somewhat stressed and feared she would not be chosen.  She is about halfway through the 90 day period.  “The cashiers are mostly young and talk back.  They take long lunches and breaks and seem to have no desire to work,” she complained.  Rochelle had told me about another trainee who said she didn’t care if she didn’t get the job, but I had never heard Rochelle say it.  It seemed to me that she was preparing herself for failure.

“Management isn’t easy,” I said.  “ One often works with people who don’t do their jobs well, and one often works with bosses one doesn’t like.  All jobs are that way,” I explained.  I also explained that not getting the permanent position would not be failure, but just accepting being a cashier in the company would mean she would be limited in income and again stuck.  “I thought you were really looking forward to moving ahead,” I said.

Rochelle gets frustrated very easily.  When we worked together at the department store she often wanted to quit at the first bump in the road.  I reminded her of that.  It was only after I got home that I starting thinking that most likely she was just afraid of failure.  She never had support growing up and has rarely tried to achieve anything in her life except this job.  She doesn’t want to lose face with her peers if she does not get the permanent position, and she doesn’t want to lose face with herself.  Hopefully we can talk about this next week.   To escape from poverty is a giant task.

The Emergency Room

images Most of Rochelle’s family use the hospital emergency room as their family doctor.  Many don’t have health insurance and wait until there is an emergency to go to the doctor.  Rochelle’s children are covered by Medicaid; Rochelle is covered by a very basic city indigent care program. Texas only offers Medicaid to children, pregnant women, and the old or disabled; her mother has Medicaid due to disability.  When Rochelle became full-time at her employment with the grocery store she was eligible for insurance coverage through them but chose to stay with the basic care provided to her free by the city.  It is by no means similar to the insurance coverage she would have received had she opted in to her company’s insurance plan.  She is now making more money, but she is still in financial trouble because she has three children to support; she did not think she could afford the insurance and never researched whether or not The Affordable Health Care law would help with the payments. At 29 she also feels somewhat invincible and is content that her children are covered by Medicaid.  Rochelle’s income is low enough so she won’t have to pay a penalty tax due to lack of insurance coverage, however.  Her experience has simply been that one goes to the emergency room when one is sick and then, when one can’t afford to pay the bill, one just doesn’t.  She never went to the doctor when she was pregnant with her first child.  “I was in denial,” she told me.  She first went to the doctor when she went into labor.

Rochelle’s mother is a good example of what a lifetime of being without health care can do.  She is 51 years old but looks 20 years older.  She has been on dialysis for at least three years.  “High blood pressure wrecked her kidneys,” Rochelle told me.  Just recently she had to be taken to the emergency room due to heart palpitations and a pulse that was racing at 190 beats per minute.  The emergency room treated her and released her; Rochelle thought her mother had a follow up appointment but was somewhat unsure.  She wasn’t sure what had caused the problem.  When Rochelle comes over for this week’s interview we will discuss the situation in more depth.  She needs to see how she could be in her mother’s situation in twenty years if she doesn’t get involved in better health care.  At age 29 she has borderline high blood pressure, is considerably overweight, and eats a very unhealthy diet.  The emergency room does not provide basic health care, though the current governor of Texas is on record as saying that he considers it a reasonable health care solution for the poor.. And this is the norm for those living in the culture of poverty.  Rochelle has started earning a little bit more money, but it is hard for her to understand the value of some of the options available to those who live outside of poverty.  Perhaps if she recognizes she could be in her mother’s situation she will be more open to some of these options.  On the other hand, it is understandably hard for someone who is finally beginning to experience a little economic leeway to tie it up in medical insurance she can’t really believe she needs.

 

 

Unequal Opportunities 101

Unknown“Why is it that all the healthy food costs lots of money?”  Rochelle asked me one day.  Now that she works in a grocery store she has noticed that organic vegetables and everything advertised as healthy is expensive; more money than she can afford.  “I would buy healthier food if I could afford it,” she said.  And of course, that is indeed the case.  Not only does Rochelle buy food that is high in calories and low in nutritional value, because that is the food that she grew up with, but she buys it because it is all she can afford; she has also never learned how to cook some of the healthier foods.  Fried chicken and pork combined with lots of carbohydrates is basically what her family eats.  They also consume a lot of soft drinks and a lot of junk food.

The grocery store where Rochelle works is interesting because it was built last summer in a location that serves customers of both low and high-income neighborhoods.  The store was built right at the dividing line of these two areas.   The higher income neighborhood was newly built a few years ago; the other is the neighborhood Rochelle lives in which has poor schools, deteriorating apartment buildings, and high crime.  Watching the different products brought to the register has been an educational experience for Rochelle.  The new, affluent neighborhood, however, does have some “affordable housing”.  This took some time to work out with various agencies, but it is something the community wanted to happen.  “Affordable housing” does not mean that it provides for subsidized housing so it is still unaffordable for the very poor.  It may be affordable for a family of four making $50,000 but not for a family of four making $20,000.  This newly built community is, however, a step in the right direction.  It is on the side of town where the poor live.  They lived on that side of town when I moved here in 1969, and a story in this Sunday’s newspaper showed that this is still where most of the poor live almost 50 years later.  The newly built neighborhood has tried to make inroads into this situation.

The town Rochelle and I live in is divided by a major north/south highway; it was once called “The Interregional” because it reaches from Mexico to Chicago.  The richer, and mostly white, people live on the west side of this highway; the east side is where the poorer, and mostly minority, people make their homes.  It has been this way for a long time.  In general it has been an area of no banks, few grocery stores and poor schools.  Somewhat south of where Rochelle lives has started to gentrify over the last 10 years.  The rents are cheap and artists and young hipsters and professionals have started to move in.  Rents are going up, and poor people are moving out.  Things will look very different in 50 more years.

Rochelle lived, grew up and went to school with people somewhat similar to her; until recently she didn’t even realize there was a difference between healthy and unhealthy foods.  A lot of us, rich and poor, live surrounded by people similar to ourselves.  If you are poor, however, at least in this town and many towns like this, you won’t have good schools, or banks, or good grocery stores available to you because they just won’t be in your neighborhoods.  If you are poor you will have unequal opportunities from the rich.  Learning about opportunities available outside her neighborhoods is another mountain Rochelle is trying to climb.  Working at the grocery store has been an eye opening experience.  “But I can’t buy my meat here,” Rochelle said of her store.  “They don’t have what I want.”

Pete Seeger died last week; he often sang a Woody Guthrie song which expresses the unequal opportunity problem very well, especially in these two verses:

                                                This Land is Your Land

                              Was a big high wall there, that tried to stop me.

                              Was a great big sign that said Private Property.

                              But on the other side, it didn’t say nothin’.

                             That side was made for you and me.

 

                             One bright sunny morning, in the shadow of the steeple,

                             By the relief office, I saw my people.

                             As they stood there hungry, I stood there wondering, if

                            This land was made for you and me.

Breaking the Cycle of Teenage Pregnancy

images“You always tell me you want to break the cycle of teenage pregnancy and poverty that has been going on in your family for generations,” I mentioned to Rochelle at the beginning of our last meeting.  She had been successfully working to improve her financial situation since we had begun our interviews a year and a half ago; last April she got hired by a good company with opportunities for advancement, but it had been quite a while since we had discussed the teenage pregnancy situation that had helped cause her poverty.   Teenage pregnancy was the norm in her extended family; how did she plan on preventing the cycle from repeating in her children’s generation?  Her eldest daughter, Kalinda, is now 11.  I had thought she was 12 because she is tall and looks older, but she won’t turn 12 until the summer.  Rochelle has not talked to Kalinda about sex yet.  “ I think maybe 7th grade is a good time,” she had told me about a year ago.  Kalinda is now in 6th grade; she mixes with 7th and 8th graders in her junior high school; Rochelle’s eldest sister got pregnant in junior high at 13.  “She is around older girls and I’m sure they are discussing sex,” I said.  “If your sister can get pregnant at 13, it could happen to your daughter just as well.  What do you think prevents young girls from going down that path?  What will prevent your daughter from becoming pregnant?”  I asked.

“Well, I think the parent needs to be home or to have the kids supervised when you aren’t there,” Rochelle said.  “When I was growing up there was no adult around.  My sisters brought boys home and I saw all that.  My mother brought men home all the time as well.  We weren’t supervised at all.  When I got pregnant I just went into denial and told no one.  Never went to the doctor.  But then, of course, I had to go to the hospital when I went into labor. Being in denial didn’t keep the baby from coming.”  I told Rochelle that supervision was needed but it took more than that to prevent teen pregnancies.  “Did you ever think about how a child would change your life or about how much money and effort is involved in raising a child?”  I asked her.  “No,” she said, “I was totally unprepared.”

“If Kalinda has a child as a teenager it will also become your problem,” I suggested.  “It will be a huge change for Kalinda, but it will also be a huge change for you because that baby will be in your house.  It is your responsibility to share all this with your daughter; to tell her how hard your life became because of a pregnancy at 16.  She didn’t make it hard for you, but being 16 at the time did.  You need to talk to her about all this and to talk to her about sex and contraception as well.  Kids grow up fast.  You grew up fast.  You need to find the time to talk to her; the sooner you do it the better for both of you,” I said emphatically.  I knew she had a lot going on, but without her moving forward in the education of her daughter, the same cycle will repeat and repeat sooner than she may think.

“Did you have any future plans for your life when you were in high school?” I asked Rochelle.  At her job, during the recent interview for a promotion, she had been asked what her five-year plan was.  No one had ever asked her that before.  I told her it was a common job interview question.  Luckily she was successful in her interview and is now promoted to a first level supervisor over cashiers.  She starts training this week.  The company has asked her to elaborate in writing about various things, one being her goals for five years from now regardless of whether she is still with the company.  “If you had had long term goals in your life do you think you might have thought more seriously about preventing a pregnancy when you were 16?” I asked.  “Yes, I love my kids, but my life stopped when I got pregnant,” she told me.  “You need Kalinda to have goals and to see what can happen to them if she becomes a teenage, single parent,” I said.  “I do,” Rochelle said, “I sure do.”